'It works' vs. 'You can do it': How influence of power affects health decisions

HARRISBURG, Pa. — On a daily basis, we are bombarded with health messages. From sleep medications to diet programs to exercise equipment, these messages permeate television, the Internet and social media marketing.  

Through her research, Meng-Hua Hsieh, assistant professor of marketing in the School of Business Administration at Penn State Harrisburg, is examining the influence of power on health decisions.

Hsieh’s research primarily focuses on healthcare marketing and examines how consumers’ mind-sets — specifically, their sense of power — influence their responses to marketing communications.

Hsieh explains that an individual’s perception of their power over their life, whether high or low, determines their likely response to advertising messaging. High-power individuals have confidence in their decisions; they feel that they can achieve their goals and be successful. Low-power individuals do not have that confidence and feel that they do not have the ability to achieve goals on their own. Based on this, people respond differently to different messages, she said, which in turn affects their behavior. 

Would self-efficacy or response efficacy messages appeal to low-power people? How does that translate into marketing messages? asked Hsieh.

Hsieh gave the example of a Zumba exercise class meant to help people become more fit. In a self-efficacy message, the Zumba class would be promoted with a message of: “You can do it!” That would be assure consumers that they have the ability to achieve success in the class. 

A response efficacy message would address the effectiveness of the product. In other words, people would be told that “Zumba works!” The message would be that they don’t have to be confident in their abilities, because Zumba is a good product that really works. They are encouraged to trust that the product works, because they don’t have to have innate trust in their own abilities. 

Interestingly, self-efficacy and response efficacy messages work equally well for high-power people. They are likely to trust messages that say, “You can do it!” as well as “It works!” That is especially true when research or testimonials to back up the effectiveness of a product are presented. 

In contrast, self-efficacy messages do not work well for people with low power because they do not trust the message of “You can do it!” They lack confidence. 

Hsieh’s research used test groups of varying sizes, from 230 to 470 individuals. Respondents were divided into groups in which some were told that they were the boss of a company and others were employees. The bosses represented high-power decision makers, while the employees were low-power followers. 

The study was based on marketing for healthcare products, including a healthcare fitness app, sunscreen and a diet plan. To test the self-efficacy and response efficacy motivations, different messages were conveyed to the respondents. 

For the healthcare fitness app, the self-efficacy message was, “You can download it in three easy steps. 1-2-3!”  The response efficacy message was, “It downloads in three easy steps. 1-2-3.” The difference is subtle. In the first, the person is told that he or she can do it. In the second, the app does it for the person. In both cases, it’s as easy as 1-2-3. 

The same applied for messages on sunscreen. On one hand, there is the message of “You can do it!” by applying sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer. On the other hand, there is the message of “sunscreen works” to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Low-power people responded better to a message for a diet plan when it was promoted that “this diet plan works!” High-power people had equally effective responses to both the diet plan that works and to being assured that “You can do it!” when they use the diet plan. 

“Understanding these mindsets can help us develop effective ways of helping people make better health decisions,” said Hsieh, noting that motivation can relate to whether consumers see a brand as working with them or for them. “A product can be a partner or a servant.”